It was the American Civil War.
In February, 1862, the city of Nashville, Tennessee, was captured by Union forces. This began one of the strangest episodes in North American military history.
Overnight Nashville was converted into a supply depot for the Union's southward moving forces. The amount of locomotive and riverboat traffic increased dramatically, as did the population of Union soldiers. Some were stationed there, others were passing through on their way to different fronts.
And prostitutes, the eternal ancillary business to military campaigns, became prevalent. An area of town called Smokey Row (named after the opium dens) featured over 70 brothels. Aside from thousands of soldiers, rumored clientele included Lincoln's future assassin John Wilkes Booth, and Lincoln's successor to the Presidency, Andrew Johnson (no link aside from coincidence has ever been uncovered).
Syphilis and gonorrhea were rampant. Soldiers and prostitutes equally became ill from diseases spread in Smokey Row.
Pvt. Franklin Bailey wrote his mother that he'd need a dictionary "to find words enough, and then I could not find them bad enough, to express my hatred of those beings calling themselves women" in Smokey Row. Later in the same letter, however, he tried his best (perhaps he borrowed a thesaurus) and wrote that they were "abominable, low, vile, mean, lewd, wanton, dissolute, licentious, vicious, immoral, and wicked."
Pvt. Bailey, however, was an exception. The general feeling of most troops was that "No man can be a soldier unless he has gone through Smokey Row"
The Union commanders were less concerned with morals than they were with military capabilities. With many of their troops hospitalized from sexually transmitted diseases, the ability to launch further military campaigns was impaired.
Punishing soldiers didn't help. Nor did medical lectures. And antibiotics were in their infancy.
Something had to be done. Since the soldiers were needed to fight the war, they couldn't leave.
And so, on July 6, 1863, General James Morgan issued "Special Order No. 29".
This order basically said that prostitutes in Nashville were to be rounded up and sent somewhere else. How and where weren't specified.
And so into the picture entered a plain 3-month-old steamboat named Idahoe and her captain/owner, John Newcomb.
Idahoe was one of many steamboats at the waterfront under charter to the army. History has not recorded why she was chosen out of the many available.
Union forces rounded up hundreds of women from Smokey Row, storming buildings and catching women who tried to jump out of windows to escape. Non-prostitutes were also inadvertently nabbed in the confusion, just from being too close to that part of town during the operation, and required family to free them.
On the morning of July 8, Capt. Newcomb was finishing his breakfast coffee on board the Idahoe, when he was assaulted by noise. As he walked to the gangplank he was met by Colonel George Spalding, who handed him an order that read, "You are hereby directed to Louisville, Kentucky with 100 passengers put on board your steamer today, allowing none to leave your boat before reaching Louisville."
Even as Newcomb read this, the ladies were being driven on board. He was given no money to buy food for them, nor guards to enforce discipline.
How many women were put on board the Idahoe is unknown. The ship was built for 100 passengers. No reliable count was taken, and the best estimate is 150-200.
The journey to Louisville was a nightmare for Newcomb. His unwanted passengers destroyed the boat's once luxurious furnishings. He had to buy ice (for fevers) and food, at his own expense. Places where he stopped for supplies put guards at the dock to keep the women from disembarking.
The prostitutes continued to ply their trade, waving at men as they went upriver, and raising their dresses to advertise. Customers rowed themselves on board for brief stays as the Idahoe chugged slowly along.
By the time he got to Louisville on July 14, word of his unusual cargo had preceded him, and local authorities refused to allow him to disembark the ladies. Instead, he was ordered to proceed to Cincinnati. Kentucky's military governor assigned several soldiers to the Idahoe to serve as guards to help enforce discipline. This quickly failed, as the men given this coveted assignment received free services from the passengers.
By the time he got to Cincinnati, of course, the local government also refused to let him unload his passengers. Newport, Kentucky, on the other side of the river, didn't want the "frail sisterhood" (as the local newspaper called them), either.
So with nowhere to go, the Idahoe anchored off Cincinnati for several days, and turned a brisk business as a floating brothel while Captain Newcomb aged rapidly. Somehow he managed to persuade the army to telegraph Washington D.C. for a decision, and the question went all the way to U.S. Secretary of War (now called Secretary of Defense) Edwin Stanton.
Stanton was managing the complex issues of a war covering half a continent and an ocean, and was likely stunned by the unusual decision that showed up on his desk that day. He came up with a direct solution: Take them back to Nashville, and deal with it.
So on August 3rd the Idahoe returned to Nashville, and it's passengers resumed their usual lifestyle. This gave the headache back to the Union commander (now General Robert Granger) who spent a few days trying to find a solution, and finally came to a very pragmatic one: he legalized prostitution.
Under the new rules, each "public woman" had to have a license ($5) but needed to pass a medical examination first. She was then required to have another exam every 10 days in order to keep her license.
The solution was a success. Suddenly the "wayward women" had a legal profession. Disease control (by the standards of the time) improved. The prostitutes now had access to medical care that they didn't have previously. The Union doctors assigned to the "Hospital for the Reception of Valetudinarian Females from the Unhealthy Purlieus of Smokey" (yes, that really is what they called it) began taking notes, and wrote some of the first detailed reports on the sociology of prostitution.
The program was such a success that physicians from other cities came to study it.
Captain Newcomb spent the next 2 years trying to get reimbursed, meeting with military officials and eventually pleading his case in Washington. Finally, on October 19, 1865, he received payment of $5316.04. This was the amount he'd been asking for from the beginning for damages, new furniture, fuel, food and medicines purchased, etc.
He had a long career on the river, but never shook off the reputation as the "captain of the floating whorehouse".
He sold the Idahoe a few years later. In 1869 she was lost in the Washita River, cause unknown.